Where Was God On Tuesday at VTU?

How could a loving god allow one crazed maniac to kill in such horrible fashion so many innocent people at Virginia Tech University last Tuesday?  How could he allow one person filled with such loathing of those around him to take away life from so many people who had worked so long to make such a difference for good in the world?

People at VTU whose minds and hearts are reeling, spinning madly while they try to orient themselves and catch their mental balance, are incessantly finding their minds going back to ask "Why?"  WHY?  And the question is even being pondered by some of the media, "How can there be such evil in a world made by a loving god?" though I am skeptical of much of the media's motives in asking it.

Many argue that considering all the evil and pain in the world, evil which sadly was made vivid to the Virginia Tech community this week, "If god loves us, he must not be all powerful; and if god is all powerful, he must not love us.  If there is a god who allows such evil to happen to innocent young people and to those who have dedicated themselves to improving those students' lives, then he must be the devil!"

If you are struggling with the problem of how god can allow evil men to hurt good people--either because of the events this week in Blacksburg, VA, or because of some personal encounter you have had with someone that you care about deeply being hurt by someone of ill will toward others, then you share something with the prophet Habakkuk who asked God: 

"Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?"  (1:13--NIV).
Isn't everything that happens God's will?

I was asked this question of why a good god allows so much evil in the world a few years ago by a prominent professor who characterizes himself as an "objectivist".  An objectivist is a disciple of Ayn Rand, a writer who had many great observations and statements about freedom and economics, but wasn't very well informed concerning a theory of knowledge or a world view that only recycled the quickly discarded presuppositional errors of the Logical Positivists of the early 20th century. 

I answered that God does so in order to love humans by giving them freedom of choice.  When I answered in this way, this prominent professor, lecturer, and writer turned to the question, "Well, if God is all powerful, doesn't that mean that he can do anything?  Can't he both make me free and stop evil from existing, or stop men from choosing to hate and harm one another?"  My answer was, "Of course not.  God cannot give men freedom, including freedom to choose whether to love or hate other humans, and simultaneously prevent humans from choosing to hate or to do evil to others." 

Well, I quickly found that this professor had no intellectual integrity, or at least not enough to be interested in really exploring one of the deepest philosophical questions and life-struggles that confront humanity, a question for which he himself had no answer:  "Why does evil exist in the world?"  His only interest was in discrediting the Judeo-Christian answer by charging that Jews and Christians are illogical because they allegedly make the contradictory claim that their omnipotent God is not all-powerful.  Of course, this is silly.  And it is totally illogical in two ways.

Can't God do anything?

First, it is illogical because it confuses the categories of power with coherency when it asks, "After all, isn't God all powerful?  Can't He do anything He wants?"  This is much like the silly question, "Can God make a rock so big that He can't pick it up?"  Well, no he can't act out incoherent self contradictory statements.

Of course God cannot make a rock so big that He could not pick it up.  This is not because of any limit in God's power.  Rather it is because the question itself is a logical absurdity.  It is playing with language so that it has the appearance of a sentence because it is structured like a sentence.  But it is not truly a coherent sentence, for it changes definitions of words in midstream.  A rock, any rock, by definition, can be picked up by God.  A rock so big God could not pick it up is neither a rock (or the whole universe for that matter), or else God is not God.  So, no, God could not make such a rock, for such a "god" or a "rock" by definition is a logical absurdity, changing its meaning within one sentence.

The absurdity of the question is like saying, "I think I'll quit being me," or "I am not me," or "This is not today."  These statements are absurdities.  They each have the structure of a sentence, but they are really gibberish rather than coherent sentences, for they change the definition either of "I," or of "me," or of "today" in midstream.  The absurdity of the first two of these example statements has nothing to do with my inability or impotence to decide who I will be.  It rather has to do with the coherent use (or lack thereof) of language.

This is the problem with saying, "God, as an all powerful being, can make men free, and he can make them choose not to hate or to harm innocents."  He can no more do that than you can make your children free of your control while you also make them do what is right.  If they are young enough, you can make them do what is right.  Or you can make them be free.  But you cannot simultaneously do both.  Not because you lack the power, but because to say that you can do both is to express an absurdity, to speak gibberish in which the words have no congruent meaning.  In the same way, God cannot make us freely choose to love.  And if He removes our freedom to choose between love and hate, He removes our capacity to love.

Second, the assertion that it is inherently contradictory to assert, "God is all powerful, but He cannot make men simultaneously both free and good," itself is a false assumption.  That false assumption is that a loving god could not give men the freedom to choose whether or not to love or to behave with good will toward one another.  Why is that an impossibility?  There is no reason either before or after any evidence from the known world to assert that it is impossible.

That in fact is exactly what almost all of us do with our children, and it is what our best societies do as well.  If we love our children (or if a nation loves her children), as they mature we give them the freedom to choose to do good or evil, to love or hate.  As loving and finite beings, if we have enough power that we can and do make this choice, how is it logical to say that an all-powerful and loving god cannot do so?  If he truly is free (as an all-powerful being surely would be since there is no thing or person who could prevent him from doing so), what logically could prevent him from doing exactly that?

So, was God mistaken in giving humans such a powerful choice?

Thomas Hobbes reflection was that "Human life is nasty, brutish, and short."  Baudelaire's despair over evil was so great that he declared, "If there is a god, then he's the devil!"

However, evil such as we saw occur in Blacksburg, Virginia, exists because humans were made with the freedom to choose whether or not to do good or evil, and at times we choose to do evil.  This is overwhelmingly stressed in the prophet Ezekiel as the reason that God holds us individually responsible for the good or evil choices we make (Ezekiel 18).  No one, including God, makes any man or woman do evil.  Rather, it occurs because each of us chooses to do so.  And that is why each person can be held accountable for the choices that he or she makes.

Some people have claimed that the world is so full of hatred and evil that God should not have given us the capacity to choose whether or not to love if one of the consequences of that choice is the terrible amount of evil that exists in the world.  There are two problems with this assertion

The first problem is that the person who makes this claim has opted to stay in the world with all its evil rather than choosing to remove him or herself from this world and all its evil.  In the most horrible of circumstances, humans fight mightily to survive.  And why do we fight so hard to continue to live in this world?  Clearly because, no matter the amount of evil in the world, life is still such a gift, such a treasure, that we prefer to live with the evil along with the good rather than to have no life at all.  For the vast majority of humans, life in this world--with all the evil in it--is still a far better thing than no life.  This includes all those at Virginia Tech who in the midst of mourning, are embracing life with gratitude for having been able to know and love those who were killed in this horrible tragedy.  In the midst of the darkness, love and live are still embraced. 

The second problem with one claiming that it would have been better to have no world at all than to have this world with the evil in it is the astounding arrogance to presume that a human could possibly know such a thing.  How could a human even begin to know that the totality of good and of love in this world is outweighed by the evil that exists in this world?  To know that would require that you know all the evil and all the good in every place and every heart at every moment in the history of the world.  How on earth can a human presume to make such a judgment?  To make such a claim is to claim for yourself the omniscience of god.  So, to make such a claim would be in effect to question yourself as god.

For all that you as a human really know, there could be only a small or even a miniscule amount of evil in this world.  It could be simply that good is so very good, so precious, and evil is such a disruption of that good, that we tend to despise and feel total revulsion at just a relatively small amount of evil.  Compared with all the real possible worlds that might have existed, this could be a world with an overwhelming amount of love and good compared to the hate and evil that exists.  This could be the very reason that people fight so strenuously to stay alive in this world.  Life, with all its difficulties, could be just too magnificently wonderful for us to willingly let go.

You as a human being simply do not at all have the spatial or temporal perspective to begin to question God's decision to make this world in such a way that we could love even though this means allowing the possibility of evil.

Why did God make us?  Why are we here?

So, why did God even make us with the ability to love and to do evil?  What is the purpose of human existence?  If you listen to the words of Jesus and many other teachers such as the Jewish rabbi's of his time, Hillel, or the teachings of Jesus' followers who recorded his words (Mark 12:28-31; Romans 13:8-10; I Corinthians 8:1-2; 13:1-3; Galatians 5:13-15, Colossians 3:14; I John 4:7-12), we were made so that He could love us and so that we, like God, could be creatures of love.  This is what, so to speak, the whole shebang is about!  Love between persons pre-exists the universe, is the reason for human existence, and will survive beyond this space-time dimension we call the universe!  And that is what we gratefully are observing being chosen in the midst of pain by innumerable persons at Virginia Tech and throughout Virginia and the nation this week.

Thus, God grants us freedom so that love can exist between human beings.  Yes, it means that some humans can choose to hate and to harm others.  But it makes possible the presence of love in the world, as we have seen as the entire community of Blacksburg and the entire nation have gathered around the survivors of the victims and embraced them with love, just as the survivors themselves have loved the victims .

Couldn't God stop the evils that have resulted from our choices?

"Well," you ask, "couldn't God have given us freedom to choose whether or not to love, but still have prevented such horrific consequences of our choices?"  Now, that's a very good question.  Just as He cannot make us free while making us love, neither can He make us free to choose between love and hate, but remove all the consequences of our choosing.  A choice after all is to choose a set of consequences.  If He removes the consequences of hating, He removes the choice of hating.  And if He removes the choice of hating, He removes our freedom to choose between love and hate. 

As Alvin Plantinga, the past long time President of the American Philosophical Association and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University explains in The Nature of Necessity, to make a choice is inherently to choose a set of consequences.  If the consequences of a choice are removed, the choice has in fact been removed.  Exactly what people operating in reality (that is to say, sane people) understand is that if the consequences of a choice are removed, the choice itself has been removed.

Think of any choice you might make.  Slowly strip away all the potential consequences of that choice.  It should quickly become obvious to you that, by removing the consequences of the choice, you are stripping away the choice itself.

Thus, when God allows us to choose whether to love or hate, to do good or evil, or to be selfish or giving, He is allowing us to choose between two sets of consequences.  If He were to remove the natural consequences of the choices offered, He is in fact removing the choices themselves.  And if He removes the choices, as we have seen, He removes the capacity for us to love. 

This reality is the theme of the existential tragedy, The Collector, in which a woman's kidnapper, desperate for someone to love him, is trapped in a conundrum of his own making--namely that his victim CANNOT truly love him, no matter how much she may pretend to do so, as long as she is not free to leave him.  Because she does not have the freedom to choose not to love him, she cannot truly love him--no matter how much they both want her to be able to do so in order to save her life.

In summary, whatever evil has hurt you or those for whom you care deeply, it is clear that evil did not occur because it was God's will.  As much as you hurt and struggle to understand the evil that now weighs upon your heart, know that those who say to you, "It was God's will!" are sadly mistaken.  God, a Father of love, did not want this evil to come into your life, the life of those you love, or the lives of any of the victims last Tuesday.  What He wants for all of us is for us to choose to love, and to live in a world in which we in turn are loved by others who make the same choice.

Don Crawford is Host of The Flipside on Rightalk Radio.